“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown”
Tags: Candlemas, Christ Thorn, Christianity, culture, Derbyshire, England, history, Holly, ivy, Norse, Norway, pagan, religion, Roman, Saturnalia, Sinterklaas, Stonehenge, Sweden, Winter Solstice, Yule, Yule log
“The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown”
The opening words of the traditional English carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, are sung with gusto all over the world, yet it is has a complex history, just like the religious festival it marks. The tune was collected in the Cotswolds area of England in 1909 by that doyen of English folk music, Cecil Sharp. The words had been published in 1710, and purported to be a old carol, possibly of Mediaeval origins; when the Victorians began to use it, its popularity was assured.
Holly – in this case Ilex aquifolium – is one of the prime hedgerow plants of the English countryside; the example shown above is part of a hedgerow in Knaresborough, Yorkshire, and it is growing close to the lovely River Nidd. The word holly comes from the Middle English hollin meaning ‘prickly’. The Common Holly is part of a genus of plants, Ilex, containing over 400 species which are found all over the world. As a means of controlling/protecting livestock, it was embraced by early herding cultures. For example, the Romans noted that the Celtic Nervii tribe (in what is now modern Belgium) were particularly skilled at penning their livestock using vegetation. The characteristic spines are carried on the wavy margins of the glossy evergreen leaves – although leaves high above ground level do not, necessarily carry spines. Although usually found as a dense bush, isolated individuals can grow in a substantial tree, anywhere from 20 to 50 feet high. The leaves themselves last around five years; when they are reaching the end of their life cycle, parts of the leaf turn brown, and assume an almost ‘spider’s web’ appearance, before falling from the tree. The tree can live at least one hundred years, and I remember my father showing me an example in a local wood which, he said, had been mature in his father’s day.
The bright red berries are actually drupes, a type of soft-skinned fruit with no discernible median line, and containing usually four seeds. The berries (and other parts of the plant) contain many toxins including a phenolic derivative (vanillic acid), an anthocyanine (cyanidin-3-xylosylglucoside), a terpenoid (ursolic acid), a sterol (beta-sitosterol) and a cyanogenic glucoside (2 beta-D-glucopyranosyloxy-p-hydroxy-6,7-dihydromande-lonitrile). All these compounds directly affect the human gastrointestinal tract and can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea. Strangely, extracts of the leaves have been used in folk medicine (and modern homeopathy) to treat such conditions as fevers (it is supposed to have general antipyretic properties) and as a diuretic. The appearance of these holly berries means, however, that small children have been known to ingest them; should this happen, immediate medical treatment should be sought. The ripe berries – particularly after a hard frost – are very attractive to both rodents and birds, with many British resident birds such as the Mistle Thrush, and winter migrants such as the Fieldfare having been known to strip trees. The seeds, after passing through the gut of the birds are scattered far and wide, complete with fertilizer!
But why is the holly so closely associated with Christmas, even down to adorning endless Christmas cards and the tops of many Christmas puddings? It harks back, not to herald angels, but to the need for converts to the new religion of Christianity. As Christianity spread out from its roots in the Roman Province of Judea, it encountered strong, very often multi-theistic religions, offering a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses to choose from. Indeed, it was not unknown for members of a Roman Legion to worship gods from more than one religion, for example (the official state cult, plus Mithras). The feast of the god Saturn – Saturnalia – was celebrated by Romans from the 17th to 23rd December, and the celebrations included parties and on ‘Sigillaria’ (23rd December) gift giving, especially to children. This was followed on the 25th December by the Roman Solar Feast, ‘Natalis Invicti, the ‘Dies Natalis’ of ‘Sol Invictus’, literally ‘the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun’. One custom was that of ‘role reversal’, with masters serving a sumptuous feast to their slaves – there is an echo down the ages here, with Royal Air Force Officers still serving Christmas Dinner to their Other Ranks.
To make Christianity more acceptable to the Roman Empire, Pope Julius I (pontificate, 337CE – 352CE) decided to resolve the differing claims being made by various ecclesiastical authorities and congregations regarding the exact date on which to celebrate the feast of the Christ’s birth, by selecting the period which covered Saturnalia, as Stephen Nissenbaum, Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wrote,
“In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.”
The Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere) has always been a time for pagan religious observances. Feasting – because not all livestock could be kept through the lean winter months, and some had to be slaughtered – was common, and a celebration of the ‘turning of the year’, determined by such monolithic monuments as Stonehenge (aligned to indicate, amongst other things, sunset on the Winter Solstice). This year, the singular point in time representing the Winter Solstice occurred at 12.11pm, U.S. Eastern Time, although it can, obviously, occur at different times, and even different dates (the 20th or 22nd, depending on where you are on the Earth’s surface). The Germanic and Norse peoples in Northern Europe celebrated the feast of ‘Jol’ or Yule, from sunset on the 20th December to sunset on the 1st January. Feasting and much ale-drinking occurred during these 12 days, and one of the traditions was that a large tree -the Yule Log – often the largest that could be found, was cut down and dragged to the communal hall where its base was inserted into the fire and as it slowly burnt, it would be fed to the flames, thus lasting – it was hoped, the whole 12 days! A cultural echo of this is the modern day Yule Log, either as a small table decoration, or as my Mother used to prepare, a rolled cylinder of chocolate sheet cake, filled with whipped cream, and iced with chocolate frosting and bearing a tiny toy robin! After all, the next village to ours was called Denby, which means ‘village of the Danes’, and we were part of the Danelaw for several hundred years. Olaf II’s attempt to convert Norway to Christianity in the eleventh century CE was only partially successful, and the Sami people in the north of the country still had a pagan belief system for hundreds of years after. Even today, you can find tiny straw goats being used as Christmas tree ornaments in Sweden. Indeed, large figures in the shape of goats are erected at this time in a number of towns in Sweden; they are often set alight. These may very well be intended to represent the two goats – Tanngnjóstr and Tanngrisnir – which, in Norse mythology, pulled Thor’s chariot across the sky.
Thus the echoes of pagan festivals ring down through the years, so much so that the Puritans, having settled in New England, in the most part to allow the free observance of their religion, determined that the feast of Christmas was too heavily influenced by pagan origins, and actually banned its observance in the Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1659 and 1681.
What of the Common Holly’s role in all this? Well, it is used to ‘deck the hall’ as in the 18th century Welsh carol (although it is likely much older) and it is known that Druids used to hang bunches on windows to repel witches and spirits. To early Christians, its prickly leaves were a reminder of the Crown of Thorns, and the berries of the blood of Christ. Indeed, in Scandinavia, the holly was often known as ‘the Christ Thorn’. Ivy was seen as representing the female and holly the male – although the holly berries are produced on the female tree. It was deemed unlucky to bring holly into the house before Christmas Eve. This could account for the fact that each Christmas Eve, for many years, I used to accompany my father to the local woods where he used to cut a low branch of a large holly tree, and drag it back to the house. There it would be stood in a large wooden cask, surrounded by bricks to hold it upright, and trimmed, and sprigs of holly would be placed behind picture frames in every room. It would be left in place until 12th Night, the Epiphany, on 6th January, when all the decorations came down, and the holly bough was burnt in the garden. I suppose you could say that this, too, might be a cultural echo from the ancient times of the Danelaw. It was not always so, for in the Middle Ages greenery was often left hanging until Candlemas, on 2nd February. This is the Christian celebration of the Christ being ‘presented’ at the temple in Jerusalem, and is a major festival.
One last point about the carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. The first lines of the refrain are, “The rising of the sun, and the running of the deer”. The first seems to be directly liked to the pagan solar festivals, but the second may refer to the Wild Hunt, a cavalcade of spirits and gods across the night sky. The ‘schimmel’ horse of the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas ‘ is said to be linked to the Wild Hunt.
As you can see, the holly is an integral part of the Christmas festivities, and the king of the hedgerow, but it is also a tree with a complex and fascinating history.